Professor Emeritus Abel dies at 83

Memorial service to be held Sept. 19 in Washington, D.C., for award-winning journalist

Photo: Edward W. Souza Elie Abel

Elie Abel

Elie Abel, former chair of Stanford's Department of Communication and a highly respected journalist and author, died July 22 at a hospice in Rockville, Md. He was 83.

The cause of death was pneumonia, complicated by a stroke and Alzheimer's disease, said his daughter, Suzanne Abel, a director at the Haas Center for Public Service.

A memorial service will be held Sept. 19 at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.

Abel came to Stanford in 1979 as the first Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication after serving as dean of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism for nine years. From 1983 to 1986, Abel headed Stanford's Department of Communication and also served as Faculty Senate chair in 1985-86. Abel directed Stanford's program in Washington, D.C., in 1993-94.

"Elie had a profound effect on improving the quality of two major American universities," said Henry Breitrose, professor emeritus and former Communication Department chair who was responsible for hiring Abel in 1979. "He raised the bar for journalism so that it transcended mere craft and embraced the world of ideas that a journalist ought to be able to rely on."

Abel was born in Montreal, Canada, on Oct. 17, 1920. He earned a bachelor's from McGill University in 1941 and a master's from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 1942. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.

As a professor, Abel drew on more than 25 years experience as a domestic and foreign correspondent for NBC News, The New York Times and other newspapers. After covering the Nuremberg war-crimes trials for the Berlin-based North American Newspaper Alliance, Abel joined the Times in 1949. For the next decade, he reported from Detroit, Washington, Belgrade and New Delhi. He covered the Hungarian uprising, earning a joint Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Times' staff in 1958 for international reporting. He also reported on the Tibetan national uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

That year, Abel returned stateside and was named Washington bureau chief for the Detroit News. In 1961, he moved into broadcasting, becoming a regular correspondent on NBC's evening news program, "The Huntley-Brinkley Report." During the 1960s, Abel covered the State Department and served as the network's London bureau chief and chief diplomatic correspondent.

In 1966, Abel published his first book, The Missile Crisis, on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. He went on to write other books and articles, including Roots of Involvement: The U.S. in Asia, with Marvin Kalb, in 1971; Special Envoy to Churchill and Stalin, 1941-46, about Averell Harriman, which he wrote with Harriman in 1975. His last book, The Shattered Bloc: Behind the Upheaval in Eastern Europe, was published in 1990, just as Communist rule had begun to implode.

Marion Lewenstein, professor emerita of communication, said that Abel was an imposing figure but enjoyed good conversation. "He looked imperious; he was tall, broadly built," she said. "When he walked into a room, you knew he was there. So many had seen him on TV for years -- he was a celebrity to a great many people. But he liked talking with people and didn't look down on them. He was a good companion."

Communication Professor Ted Glasser said Abel was one reason why he joined Stanford's faculty. "He was a public intellectual -- he had a distinguished career both as an academic and a journalist." Breitrose recalled that one of Abel's favorite compliments was to say someone had "a well-furnished mind." That description also fit Abel, Breitrose said: "He was enormously erudite; he had a wide-ranging intellect."

At Columbia, Abel was best known for establishing the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship for mid-career journalists and for naming the first woman, Phyllis Garland, to a faculty tenure-track position.

At Stanford, Abel pursued academic life with enthusiasm. "He loved Stanford -- he used to say there were no demilitarized zones between departments," Breitrose said. "He formed many warm friendships and he valued that."

Abel brought his entrenched journalistic values to Stanford as a colleague and teacher. In January 1985, he successfully led an effort to open Faculty Senate meetings to off-campus journalists for the first time, arguing that doing so would increase public understanding of the university. "I believe the level of debate in the Senate is, on the whole, high and that our debates, when reported in area newspapers by reporters who are allowed to watch and listen, can be expected to increase public understanding of the university's needs and priorities," he wrote in a letter to the faculty.

Abel insisted that his students learn the difference between journalism and stenography, Breitrose said. "Elie really pressed students to be ruthlessly analytic," he said. "He believed that journalists must bring knowledge into the story to help the reader understand. He used to say, 'We're in the sense-making business.'"

In addition to the Pulitzer, Abel earned a George Foster Peabody Award for radio news in 1967, and Overseas Press Club awards in 1969 and 1970. In 1998, Abel received the Grand Prize for Press Freedom of the Inter-American Press Association for his efforts to fight proposed regulation of journalists. In 1980, Abel was U.S. delegate to a UNESCO conference where leaders of developing nations, frustrated by Western media dominance, proposed licensing journalists to gain more favorable coverage. Abel successfully fought those efforts.

In addition to his daughter, Suzanne, of Palo Alto, Abel is survived by his widow, Charlotte Hammond Page Dunn of Washington, D.C.; his son, Mark Abel, of Richmond, Calif.; and a granddaughter. His wife of 45 years, Corinne Prevost Abel, died in 1991.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations honoring Abel be sent to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 330 Seventh Ave., 12th Floor, New York, NY 10001, or the Alzheimer's Association, 225 N. Michigan Ave., Floor 17, Chicago, IL 60601.